Why it’s a mistake to call Mark Sanford a hypocrite

There’s no logical inconsistency in supporting laws you’re personally tempted to break.

I’d love to pretend that I’m not paying attention to Gov. Sanford’s political self-mutilation, or that I don’t love the fact that someone who has been a catastrophically bad Governor of South Carolina and who could have been a dangerously attractive right-wing Republican candidate for President just self-destructed, and in the course of so doing once again made a joke of “family values” as a political issue. But I am, and I do.

Having said that:

1. As several people have noted, in a sane world Sanford’s previous attempt to increase the misery of the poor people in South Carolina would be a much greater disability than his forgetfulness about his marriage vows.

2. In the course of his adultery &#8212 which I regard as his private business and none of mine &#8212 he seems to have misused public funds. The legislature, or the state police, might want to inquire. But his infidelity itself is no more an appropriate matter for public discussion than was Bill Clinton’s.

3. Surely Sanford is right that American public life would run better and be less psychologically damaging to its participants if more politicians took more time away from the bubble.

4. But there are times when a Governor is actually needed; he’s not allowed to just disappear for a week. If he’d taken a week’s leave of absence, leaving his Lieutenant Governor to act in his place, that would have been one thing. But vanishing without leaving anyone with contact information was a serious dereliction of duty. Again, the legislature might want to take note. [UPDATE: Sanford’s friend Tom Davis, now a State Senator, says Sanford was reachable by cell phone. If so, why didn’t his staff say as much?]

5. Just watched the video, I thought he handled himself admirably. He was dignified, not arrogant, not flippant, not maudlin. He spoke in full, coherent sentences. But I seem to be alone in thinking so; everyone else seems to be using words like “meltdown” and “train wreck.” Watch and see whether you agree with me, or with the rest of the world. Remember what Thoreau said: One with the truth on his side is a majority. With you, we’ll have two, which is a super-majority.

(About 10 minutes.)

6. I did notice that in apologizing to everyone on the planet he omitted to apologize to the press, for deceiving them. That tells you something about how politicians view the press; I doubt the attitude is restricted to wingnuts.

7. Naturally, opponents of the theocrat agenda (such as yours truly) will be tempted to use Sanford’s behavior to argue against his positions, and/or to argue that he can’t actually hold those positions seriously: if you’re really for “family values,” what are you doing celebrating Father’s Day with your girlfriend? But neither half of that superficially attractive argument holds water.

Think about it in terms of a policy, and a politician, you support. Imagine a rich liberal Democratic Senator who favors higher taxes on the rich and more aggressive tax enforcement but chisels on his own income taxes. Does his personal chiseling prove that he really doesn’t favor higher taxes on the rich? Does his chiseling prove that progressive taxation is a bad idea?

Obviously not. He might reasonably say:

Almost everyone wants to make than his fair share of the necessary contributions to our collective burdens, from defense to provision for the poor. That’s why we have compulsory taxes rather than voluntary contributions. And many people are tempted, once taxes are in place, to cheat; greed is a very common failing. That’s why we need tough tax enforcement, to keep people like me from getting away with it. I’m sorry that I gave in to the temptation. But my conduct argues for, and not against, the policies I support.

[Of course, voters might want to have a less temptable politician in office, and advocates of redistributive taxation might want to have a less tainted spokesman.]

Or how about an environmentalist who drives a Lexus? Shouldn’t he say, “Yep. People overconsume goods with high external costs unless there are Pigouvian taxes in place. I support $5-per-gallon gasoline; if we get it, I’ll either pay the tax or buy a new car.”

Or, for that matter, how about a married gay proponent of marriage equality who disappears for a weekend to cruise the bars of Provincetown? Are we to call him, too, a hypocrite?

So we have no reason to doubt that Sanford was sincere when he said that the institution of marriage was divinely intended to protect people like him from their own bad impulses, and other people from the side-effects.

Now in my eyes it’s wicked and heartless of Stanford and his allies to deny those same protections to people who would like to marry within rather than across sex lines, but that’s a completely different argument: one that accepts the institution of marriage but argues for expanding its scope.

The fact that the politics of marriage and family get hopelessly twisted up with moralism and religion makes us wish that we could exclude the question from politics, but we can’t. Both the spousal and the parental relationships are defined by law, as well as by custom. The argument is not really about whether the state should have policies to foster “family values”: it’s about what families, and what values, should be incorporated in those policies.


Adultery is still a crime in South Carolina. That opens up a line of questioning that it would be very hard for Sanford to answer. (A) Does he believe that he should be prosecuted for his crime? (B) Does he favor repeal of the adultery law (which is no doubt a dead letter)? If the answers are “no” and “no,” then the charge of hypocrisy gets stronger, unless Sanford wants to argue, weakly, that it’s good to have the law on the books for expressive reasons but that it shouldn’t be enforced.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com